Navigating Ex-pat Life in the Volta Region of Ghana: Lifelong Friends in a Remote Village
By Annie Chen
GoNOMAD Senior Writer
I had been to 13 countries in Africa but none of those experiences were quite like living in Ghana.
When I moved to Ho, near the border of Togo in the Volta region of Ghana, I realized there was a steep learning curve to surviving life in Western Africa as a Westerner.
Family and Religion
Ghanaian society, like many African countries, is family-centered, with neighbors nearby knowing your business since they can see, hear and smell everything going on in your home and kitchen.
In my gated community, everyone always knew exactly when I left and returned, what I was wearing, and with whom I was with.
Oftentimes, neighbors commented on my new outfit or asked what I was blending in my kitchen the previous day.
The farther outside of the capitals, the more prevalent older traditions remained, such as having multiple wives. In fact, it’s quite prestigious in a sense, as it indicates that they can afford to provide for so many people.
I met a taxi driver that had 15 siblings, though he admitted he didn’t remember specifics, like ages, for each one.
Older siblings regularly become surrogate parents for younger siblings, cooking and helping out around the house at an early age.
Nobody Wants to be Chief
Village chieftainship is also passed down from generation to generation, on the father’s side to the first-born son. The only way he can escape this title and position is by leaving, forcing the community chiefs to select another relative on the father’s blood family side.
A friend I had was such an heir, and he would lament about the possibility, yet challenges of actually taking that plunge away from his obligations. Stools carved out of wood and featuring a character or symbolic animal, are the primary sign of the family’s power and authority.
In the case the sons are twins, neither one is chosen as chief (fun fact: all twins in Ghanaian society are named local names that mean “older twin” and “younger twin”, such as Ata and Kuma, in their local language, Ewe).
Huge Weddings and Funerals
Weddings are huge weekend festivities, but ironically, funerals are even more of a sight to see.
On Fridays, bodies of anyone that had passed away during the week would be retrieved from the freezer and with the help of a professional, put in a position of significance (i.e. a teacher would be posed standing with a piece of chalk in hand “teaching”) for well-wishers to see one last time.
On Saturday morning, the body is laid in the coffin and brought to church or a public square for religious blessings, and lastly, to the cemetery for the singing and final send-off.
Guests don black and white if the deceased was elderly or died of natural causes, while they’d sport redder clothing if the deceased were a young person or was killed prematurely.
Naturally, every weekend when I’d wander into the heart of town, traffic would be congested from all the weddings and funerals.
Religion plays a huge role in other ways. I never got tired of passing stores named “Thy Kingdom” or “Jesus Will Not Lose”.
Sundays are reserved for church services and pounding fufu, though there can be several church services a week.
I knew several Ghanaians named Redeemer and Savior, and those with Ewe names like Makafui (“Glory be to Him), Eyram (“God has blessed me”), and Etornam (“God has answered me”) were not unusual.
Christians comprise two-thirds of the population, while approximately one-third are Muslim.
Social Life and Free Time
One night when I returned home, I saw multiple cars parked in our communal space and heard loud wailing reverberating from the landlady’s home.
Convinced the melancholy gathering on a Friday night could only be a funeral, I popped into a neighbor’s home to ask who had passed away.
Their laughter finally gave way long enough to answer that it wasn’t a funeral but a party and that Ghanaian music might sound somber to a foreigner’s ears but the drunken guests were singing songs of joy and celebration.
Ghanaian socializing also includes taking walks around the communities, people-watching, and just having a laugh.
One night, two of the girls in my community invited me on a walk with them and bemusedly, I watched as they skipped along, turning on and off public lights for the sheer enjoyment of it.
They also easily identified every plant and flower along the way, which ones were edible, collectible or used in Palm Sunday rituals, and patches where snakes or rodents could live.
At nighttime, bars and clubs are frequented but typically by the younger, edgier crowd, sporting shorter skirts, more accessories and jewelry commonly frowned upon in the daytime (like anklets), and smoking, a habit attached to a negative stigma.
There was only a handful in Ho, so everyone clustered in neighboring streets, lending to the noise levels.
Watching Ghanaian television is another popular pastime with an eclectic mix of options. Besides the news channels and US blockbuster movies starring action stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson or Bruce Willis, Ghanaian TV also aired an international mix of Korean dramas, Mexican telenovelas, or most popularly, Bollywood series.
I spent many afternoons with my neighbors having Nigerian music videos explained to me just before the Miss Commonwealth pageant would come on.
Volta Food and Drinks
Ghanaian food can be categorized as quite heavy, normally with starch or carbohydrate accompanying a spicy, red sauce stew or soup together.
For example, banku is pounded corn and cassava paste, and fufu is pounded plantains and cassava, both appearing smooth and white in lumps to be eaten (by hand) with goat and/or okra stew.
Kose, a black-eyed pea fritter with peppers, is eaten with porridge for breakfast, normally made by the Ghanaian Muslim population. Redred is popular as well, a beans-and-onions mixture over fried plantains, grass-cutter, a large rodent, or cane rat, which accompany fufu.
When I went with a Ghanaian friend to try these rodents at a local “chop bar” (casual restaurant), I had already bitten into my rat leg before he casually mentioned to be careful with shotgun pellets left in the meat.
Sure enough, I slowly located, with my tongue, the cold round balls of metal and spit them out, trying not to imagine the hunt.
Many times, I caught locals swinging around baobab pods, the fruit of the African tree that has a brown, hard, spiky shell. They are often eaten raw, with white chalk-like pulp and seeds inside, pressed into a juice, or made into ice cream when combined with some milk and water, and frozen. Incidentally, these pods have been cited as one of the least known-about superfruits that is consumed in great amounts in impoverished African countries.
Besides the typical soft drinks in the Coca-Cola family, Ghanaians enjoy a cold Malt, a barley energizing soda that can be found at every corner shop and restaurant. It comes in chocolate as well, like the popular Milo powder that makes hot chocolate energy drink the locals consume at all hours of the day.
Sweet palm wine is locally harvested from the trunk of palm trees which, when left in the heat, ferments and has a fairly high alcoholic content.
I was lucky enough to happen upon a farmer on a hike who excitedly showed me how he would blow a flame into the exposed part of the tree trunk on top and the oxygen intake required would push out the wine from the bottom.
Non-blacks in Ghana will undoubtedly find themselves the center of attention more than they’re likely used to.
In larger cities, such as Accra, kids are more emboldened and will ask for photos with you, but in smaller towns or villages, like where I frequented, they would just shyly wave or call out “yevu!” or “obruni!” (their word for anyone that is light-skinned).
I learned quickly that manners are highly valued in Ghanaian society, so when wandering around taking photos of the environment, I had to ask before taking a picture of a local.
Like in many countries, photos of the police or government buildings aren’t allowed under any circumstance. Strangely enough, for me, introducing one’s name isn’t part of the habit here when initially meeting a new person.
Health and Weather
For most of the year, there is intense humidity (90% or higher), particularly during the rainy season (March through October) and with that comes regular power shortages and water cuts. I was lucky to have spare plastic tubs and buckets in my kitchen and bathroom to store water.
Part of my daily routine ended up including regular washing of clothes, due to the dirt road network that would lead to mud sticking to my shoes and skirts.
The Harmattan Weather
During the dry season, from October through February, when the harmattan weather phenomenon blows southwest from the Sahara desert, stronger winds, an evening cool, and dust and dirt cover the townships.
The mud which normally coats the roads and hiking paths to the mountains and waterfalls becomes brown dust that cakes sandals, clothing, and skin, and breathing near the roads isn’t easy.
I learned to stuff shirts and extra rags under my doorway to keep out the dust. More comically, restaurants would serve me with the dishes wrapped in plastic wrap – to prevent dust and insects from contaminating the food- and I could, more often than not, see a visible layer of dust on the plastic wrap.
In a reminder of the constant heat, I showed a 10-year-old girl once a photo of a snowstorm in Peru. I asked if she’d ever seen snow before, and she excitedly cried out, “We have this in our refrigerator!”
Be Wary of the Hospital
If you’re taken ill, be warned that hospitals and clinics have long lines of waiting patients sitting outside in the heat for hours at a time. If you forget your malaria pills or insect repellent, both can be easily found and purchased in-country.
Also, occasionally, treatments in-country are even more effective than those from your home country. An open sore on my right foot wasn’t healing for weeks, and no one could understand why none of our medication was working. Finally, an older woman down the street scolded me, “You’re in Africa, you need African medicine!” and thrust a tube of antibacterial cream in my hands. Within hours, the sore had visibly improved.
Communication and Language
Officially, English is the official language of Ghana but that doesn’t mean there won’t be miscommunications. I had to quickly adapt to the accent and local usage of certain vocabulary- for instance, the traffic is “choke” with cars, “cucs” are cucumbers, tops without sleeves are “armless” and Christmas is quite commonly referred to as “Exmas”.
Adjectives become verbs, like “backing a child” means “to carry one on your back”, or “offing the light” as a quicker way to say “turn off the light”.
Apart from English, there are over 250 languages and dialects spoken in the country with it not being uncommon for a Ghanaian to speak 4 or 5. Ranging from Twi to Ga, Ghanaian pidgin to Ewe, these languages dominate conversations amongst the communities and on the streets. It was jarring to learn some phrases in Ewe, only to visit Accra once and find that none of the greetings or basic phrases were the same.
Transportation and Travel in Upper Volta
Moving about the country can be quite affordable, but definitely, an experience not to be taken lightly by those with motion sickness. The roads are windy, often dirt with hand-made speed bumps, and regularly interrupted with massive potholes or police barriers for random checks. I made sure to always have my ID on me, as well as Dramamine. Baboons or goats crossing the street also cause cars to slow down or swerve.
Tro-tros are the most common form of public transportation. A cross between a minivan and a bus, they leave the terminal stations when the vehicle is filled to capacity, and not a second earlier. One afternoon in a small town outside Ho, I had just missed the previous tro-tro, so I was the first passenger in my vehicle and had to wait 2 hours and 15 minutes before we could leave the station full.
When tro-tros pass rest stops or major bus stops, be prepared to have your van rushed by food vendors carrying baskets and wooden crates on their head with an assortment of snacks.
You can popularly find fried chicken, apples in a bag, or peeled oranges, but also oysters on a stick, salted eggs, or peanuts in plastic water bottles for one or two Ghanaian cedis.
Find out more about Volta, Ghana from the Ghana Tourism Board